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The faces behind Scotland’s top malts

Those behind the world’s most revered malts aren’t just middle-aged men, as proved by a photographic tour of Scotland’s top distilleries – previewed over the following pages.

Laura-Vernon – Cragganmore; Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

Colin Hampden-White didn’t visit Scotland to dispel the notion of a stereotypical whisky maker. But having decided to capture some of Scotland’s leading distillers, he was pleasantly surprised to find very few middle-aged men with beards – which for many is the overriding image of those in the whisky trade.

Indeed, of the nine distilleries he visited and photographed – all of which are part of Diageo’s Classic Malts Selection – two of them had women making the Scotch, and one had a black Zimbabwean.

Hampden-White, who is originally from Edinburgh, is passionate about whisky, as well as wine, and captured nine different Diageo distilleries, their distillers and their surrounding landscapes.

The pictures were exhibited in January this year at his first solo show in New York, at the Rebecca Hossack gallery on Mott Street in the city’s Chinatown.

They are due to feature in London from 21 September to 31 December at the Marylebone Hotel.

Speaking of the upcoming exhibition, Hampden-White says: “The inside of the hotel is beautiful and there are lots of very nice areas for showing pictures.”

Each portrait is designed to show a different stage of the whisky making process.

As for the Diageo focus, he says that he chose to concentrate on the drinks giant’s portfolio in Scotland because of the company’s help in organising the shoots. “They were fantastic,” he says, and explains, “I was fascinated by being able to photograph possibly the oldest distillery, in Lagavulin, to the newest in Roseisle.”

• Prints of Colin Hampden-White’s images are limited to editions of five, all at 90x60cm and priced at US$2,000 each.

1. Georgie Crawford – Lagavulin

Geogie Crawford – Lagavulin; Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

Taken outside a malt bin, where the malt is stored before it is used, Hampden-White explains that this image marks the start of the pictorial journey. The portrait is designed not just to reflect Crawford’s relaxed persona, but also the feel of the distillery itself, which he describes as a “big, white, blocky building, which is stunning in the sun – this could be the Mediterranean with its whitewashed walls.”

By coincidence, Hampden-White knew Crawford as a child. He says that Crawford came from Islay but she moved away before returning to the island as a distiller.

Lagavulin is on the south coast of Islay, near the ruins of Dunyveg Castle, and is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, having produced Scotch on its current site since 1742.

2. Mark Lochead – Talisker

Mark-Lochead – Talisker; Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

Lochead has been the distiller for Talisker for “a long time” according to Hampden-White. “He is much more of the typical Scottish distiller,” he remarks.

“It was a horrible day,” recalls Hampden-White, “and so we couldn’t shoot outside.” When he went into the barrel store, he found that Lochead’s clothing matched the paint on the casks. When it came to the pose, Hampden-White insists he didn’t suggest that his subject cross his arms. “He just did that, and while it’s normally associated with being defensive, he wasn’t at all, he is a lovely open character – it might be the effect of the camera.”

Talisker is currently the only distillery on the Isle of Skye, the largest and most northerly island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland.

3. Mike Tough – Oban

Mike Tough – Oban; Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

Oban’s distiller had only been managing the production at the site for a matter of weeks when the photograph was taken in late 2011, explains Hampden-White. He chose to photograph Mike Tough in front of an old smoke stack, which is the oldest part of the distillery, and no longer in use. “I liked the colour contrast – the blue on the red,” he says.

However, alluding to the industrial nature of the background, Hampden-White says: “Distilleries aren’t the most attractive places in the world.”

Unlike Lochead above, who crossed his arms, but displayed an open personality, Hampden-White says that here Tough has “a very open pose, but was harder to get to know… rather than being exuberant, he was more of a Scottish brooding character, although still very nice.”

The distillery was built in 1794 in the west coast port of Oban, on the frontier between the West Highlands and the Inner Hebrides. It is renowned for its 14-year-old expression.

4. Ewan Mackintosh – Dalwhinnie

Ewan-Mackintosh – Dalwhinnie; Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

Dalwhinnie’s distillery manager is pictured here in the still room. “I asked him which was his favourite part of the distillery and he said the still room,” says Hampden-White. He also points out that beyond the door in the background is a worm tub, which Dalwhinnie still uses to cool the fresh spirit from the still (like Cragganmore, Glenkinchie, Oban and Talisker).

As for Mackintosh’s character, Hampden-White says it was: “exactly as the image portrays; he was a charming, very nice guy.”

The distillery is located deep in the Highlands, and was established in 1897 by the Strathspey Distillery Co.

5. Laura Vernon – Cragganmore

Laura Vernon – Cragganmore; Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

One of the most striking of the portraits, master distiller Laura Vernon is captured almost chameleon-like, wearing clothes that appear to mimic the staining on the copper still behind. “I was very lucky because when I arrived, Laura was in her work clothes, but said she wanted to go and get changed,” recalls Hampden-White, “when she came back wearing this top, I knew immediately where I wanted to photograph her, as I had already seen the base of the stills and there was this part where the cladding, which would normally cover the base, had come away. The colours are formed by a chemical reaction between the salts and copper.”

Hampden-White adds that Vernon is new to the distillery and making Scotch, although she was brought up around Cragganmore. “She did a degree in chemistry and worked for GlaxoSmithKline,” says Hampden-White. “She has numerous qualifications and wanted to come to come home and got the job at Cragganmore.”

Cragganmore was founded in 1869 and is situated in the village of Ballindalloch, on the River Spey in the Moray region.

6. Peter Campbell – Cardhu

Peter Campbell – Cardhu; Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

Peter Campbell is pictured between two washbacks in this powerful image. Hampden-White says that there are two levels: “The upper level where you can take measurements and the lower, underneath a floor, where this picture is taken.” He notes: “You don’t get the impact of the size until you go underneath, and normally you are not allowed there because CO2 collects and it’s not very safe.”

Hampden-White describes is as “the best looking washback room I have ever seen,” and hence his decision to put Campbell at the centre of the space.

Cardhu was founded in 1824 and is situated in Speyside near Archiestown, Moray. The distillery’s whisky is an important part of Johnnie Walker blended Scotch.

7. Sean Phillips – Mortlach

Sean-Phillips – Mortlach; Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

Moving up a level, Sean Phillips is pictured here at the top part of the washbacks, where the measurements are taken. Hampden-White photographed the Mortlach master distiller lying down to show how little of the barrels actually feature above the floor. “If he was standing up, the washbacks would look too squat and wouldn’t have the same impact,” he explains.

Phillips, who is English, was a distiller for Gordon’s gin, but had wanted to move to Scotland. “Eventually this job came up and Sean is in seventh heaven – it is his perfect job, and he may even have taken a pay cut to move to Scotland,”says Hampden-White.

Phillips’ love of Scotland stems from time spent in the region when he first started his career in distilling, according to the photographer.

The Mortlach distillery was founded in 1824 in Speyside’s Dufftown, and was the first legal distillery to be built there.

8. Kinwale Mdluli – Glen Elgin

Kinwale Mdluli – Glen-Elgin; Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

Hampden-White was certainly surprised to find a chemist from Zimbabwe distilling Glen Elgin in Speyside. “He’s got more than one doctorate and he’s a complete chemistry geek,” he says, adding, “He thinks distilling formulae all the time and is an absolute perfectionist.” Indeed, Hampden-White forecasts an improved reputation for this distillery because of Mdluli, who has only been at Glen Elgin for a few months.

“Before he started at Glen Elgin, he didn’t know much about whisky, but he has obviously got an amazing palate because it’s difficult to tweak something that is good already, and it’s very hard to taste new spirit.

“He’s doing brilliant things and gets on so well with everyone.”

Mdluli is pictured behind a spirit safe to mark the end of making the spirit. “It’s not polished and gleaming for the tourists,” says Hampden-White of the spirit safe, “but is a proper working bit of the distillery.”

Glen Elgin is three miles south of Elgin in Speyside on the road to Rothes. It was the last distillery to be built during the boom years of the 1890s.

9. Gordon Winton – Roseisle

Gordon Winton – Roseilse; Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

Hampden-White finishes his portraits at Roseisle, Scotland’s first new major whisky distillery for 30 years. It was opened by Diageo in October last year at a cost of £40m (HK$483m), and the photographer says he wanted to make it look as though master distiller Gordon Winton was “standing in front of an army of stills because there is such a huge output – a potential for ten million litres per year.” Winton’s hard hat and reflective jacket suggests that the distillery is still under construction, reflecting its new-build status.

Roseisle is in Speyside near Elgin. Hampden-White describes it as the most inhospitable place of all the distilleries he visited for the photographic series. “It is on flat ground facing the North Sea – this is a harsh environment.”

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